Donald Trump’s way of conducting foreign policy is unique to say the least. Throughout his time in office, he has pedalled a hardline while in practice he has been moderate. He put up with H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, who represented the established order, while making overtures to Kim Jong Un. He seems to be repeating the same trick with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Director John Bolton.
It is not clear whether he supports these spokesman any more that he did Tillerson and McMaster. Clearly, they are pursuing policies that are accruing no benefits for the president. At Munich, the NATO Alliance seemed hostile to Trump. Vice President Mike Pence drew only silence when he offered greetings from his boss. As well, Pompeo, whose desire for war against Iran is only exceeded by Bolton, had few takers in forming a coalition against Tehran. Venezuela and the rolling coup to install Juan Guaido as president seemed to lose momentum, with Trump deciding to meet Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam.
As with McMaster, Tillerson and Nikki Haley, Trump strings them along until he cuts them loose. Syria, where the press confidently celebrated the so-called comedown by Trump, regarding withdrawal, were in the end left with nothing. Trump reduced a force of 2,000 to 200. It appears he got the better of the argument. Or, it might be that Trump’s attempting to wiggle out of the ropes placed around him by his foreign policy handlers.
No doubt the distasteful leaks come from the masters of war Pompeo and Bolton. Even with Venezuela it is not clear that Trump is leading the effort. He is simply giving his newest wonderboys a chance of pulling a bloodless coup. Trump goes to Hanoi with other fish to fry. Perhaps he, along with China, can guide Kim onto another path in the same direction of Vietnam.
The hardline approach envisioned by Pompeo and Bolton comes at a bad time. Cuba approved a constitution that mandated significant market reforms. Even Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega proposed some decreasing of state intervention in the economy. Cuba is clearly heading in the Chinese direction, which is exactly the same route Trump endeavors to lead North Korea. The president is not George W. Bush and smartly does not want a war.
But, Trump is fighting a tough battle within his own government. He was forbidden to make any important moves toward the Russian Federation — the Mueller probe ended that. But, he has gotten his way with North Korea and if this effort at detente succeeds, his critics might seem petty. Clearly his “advisors” with their old-fashioned concepts do not fully understand Trump’s direct yet shrewd approach.
Perhaps this might be a too sunny estimate of Trump’s devotion to peace, but it is safer than betting on Bolton and Pompeo. If these are the “grown-ups” in the room, then heaven help us contain these self-declared adults. Trump has tried to control the war masters, but it is hard to fight the insiders, not to mention both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. In this let’s hope Trump’s unorthodox approach succeeds.